The Golden Age sets further on the hills of Hollywood with the passing of Olivia De Havilland, at the age of 104. Havilland was one of the few left from Hollywood’s Golden Age, an era of glitz, glamour, heroes and heroines. The British-American actress is best known for her role as Melanie Hamilton opposite Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara in the Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, alongside other iconic actors such as Leslie Howard and Clark Gable. The film became the very definition of the Hollywood epic with a huge running time of 221 minutes. De Havilland became the last surviving cast member of the 1939 epic after Mary Anderson’s death in 2014.
Off the silver screen, De Havilland had a rocky relationship with her sister, and fellow golden age actress, Joan Fontaine. The sisters’ relationship became the epicentre for Hollywood gossip, particularly after the 1942 academy awards, where Joan won best actress and had allegedly left her sister out of her acknowledgements. This was only an episode in the sisters’ sticky relationship which reignited over time until Joan’s death in 2013.
De Havilland was born on 1 July 1916 in Tokyo, Japan to Walter and Lillian. Her father was a patent lawyer, and her mother Lillian was a stage actress who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and toured with the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. De Havilland’s acting career started on stage with performances in Alice in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but her first break as a screen actress came at 19 starring in Captain Blood alongside the swashbuckler Errol Flynn. The pair would work together in many films, including Flynn’s most iconic role in The Adventures of Robin Hood with De Havilland as Maid Marian.
The Flynn/De Havilland partnership was key in the latter’s ability to show great chemistry on screen with male leads, with Flynn’s majestic presence working well with De Havilland’s beauty and charm. The duo’s work on The Adventures of Robin Hood gave De Havilland a platform to navigate intimate scenes with a male lead or supporting actor. In Gone with the Wind, her affection for Leslie Howard’s character Ashley is a well-developed study of the young, virtuous and naïve Melanie Hamilton. De Havilland’s role earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but it wasn’t enough. However, history was made with co-star Hattie McDaniel scooping the prize for her portrayal of ‘Mammy’, becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. De Havilland finally bagged an Oscar for her performances in To Each His Own and The Heiress. Her final appearance was in 1988 before she retired from acting a year later.
De Havilland leaves behind a legacy and embodies a bygone era, the likes of which may not be seen again. Hollywood’s Golden Age is a unique treasure, and though it is fading into the sunset, it is a sight that is still admirable to look back on.
Words by Lewis Oxley